Wonder of Wool at American Textile History Museum

Posted by Raza Wool on June 21, 2015 0 Comments

Today we made a field trip to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell to see the new Wonder of Wool exhibit and revisit the regular exhibits.

What caught our eye on this visit? Surprisingly, it was gloves.

This pair was crocheted in cotton and then embroidered.

This pair was knitted in wool. There isn't a lot of information about them except that they are called shag gloves and they were very popular in New England, but little of their history has survived. Unlike the popular thrummed mittens and gloves, which have the extra fiber on the inside, the additional wool is on the outside of these gloves. Judging by their condition, I'd say these gloves were not used very much.

The museum has machinery for processing wool and cotton, but none of it was running when we were there. There was a loom:

My favorite is the skeining machine:

Notice the way the wall is painted - I remember that from the old mills around here. The top of the wall was always a cream color, and the bottom was always a darker green or grey or brown, to hide the dirt.

Raza is located in the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts, and the two largest nearby cities, Lowell and Lawrence, were built for textile production in the mid 19th century. Many of my relatives moved to this area to work in the mills. My grandfather was a mule spinner for the American Woolen Company. Mule spinning took a three year apprenticeship and was highly skilled work. I'm hoping to learn more about it so that I can better explain it.

My grandmother worked at the Arlington Mills as a spinner, so I was excited to see this photo from the Wonder of Wool exhibit:

That's not her, but that's when she worked there. They also had an Arlington Mills security guard cap and badge in the regular museum collection.

The guard who donated this worked there at the same time as my grandmother. What they didn't say is that the workers were locked in all day and could not leave. When my other grandfather was a kid, he used to earn pocket money by delivering dinner pails to the workers - he would pick up the hot meals at the workers' homes, run them to the mill gates at dinner time, and pass them through the bars.

Another thing that I have never heard or read about in any histories of the textile mills are the telltale signs that someone worked in the mills. The mills were very, very loud, and there was no hearing protection. Anyone who spent a significant time working in the mills, like my grandparents, lost a good deal of their hearing. (There is a local museum where you can experience that, and I will blog about that in the future.) The other side effect of working in the mills was missing digits. I grew up in a Merrimack Valley where most of the people in my grandparents' generation were missing parts of their fingers. All it took was touching the machine, or the spinning wool, and that was it. Despite working for decades in the mills, my grandparents had all of their fingers. My grandfather's youngest sister, who worked as a spinner in the Arlington Mill with my grandmother, was missing the tip of one index finger, down to the top knuckle.

There are a few more  photos I have from our visit, and I will share them in future posts. The Wonder of Wool exhibit itself is very small (one room), but it's worth visiting the museum to see the many items in the permanent collection.

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